Monthly Archives: February 2017

Hamlet – The Almeida

 

hamlet-the-almeida-by-miles-aldridgeAt just shy of four hours, it’s fair to say the Almeida’s new version of Hamlet, which has its press night tomorrow, is by far the longest I’ve ever seen, and while it doesn’t always feel as long as it is, anyone lucky enough to have tickets to this already sold out run should brace themselves for a marathon. And while the overall production is pretty good, has a quite excellent central performance and is bubbling with ideas, it also has a few inconsistencies and frustrations that the extended length draws attention to. But of course four hours is an awfully long time to be doing anything; you could watch two movies, take the Eurostar from London to Paris and start to sightsee, read a 200 page book or watch an omnibus edition of Four in a Bed and still have 90 minutes to spare.

But Hamlet is a character that you want to spend time with, an endlessly fascinating creation who holds a ‘mirror up to nature’ and gets to the very heart of life, death, grief and madness, who for centuries has attracted actors desperate for their turn to play the role. There is no wrong way to perform it because it is always a very personal reading, and 18 months ago, when reviewing Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican, I talked about there being as many interpretations of Hamlet as there are actors to play him and audiences to watch. What you see in Hamlet will depend on you and eventually there will be an actor who plays him exactly as you imagine he should be.

In recent times most of the versions we’ve seen have largely been straightforward hero-Hamlets, distraught with grief and feigning madness to seek a just revenge, while the actors who’ve played him, despite nuances they bring to the character are those we largely associated with good-guy roles – Tennant, Cumberbatch, Whishaw – all actors the public see a certain way, playing characters who are at heart decent people. So it feels right that Andrew Scott’s new version at The Almeida shifts the balance, giving us a Hamlet that is full of rage and bitterness, whose true madness is entirely possible.

Director Robert Icke has set his version in a sleek office or waiting room,  a purgatorial no man’s land, with sliding glass doors that lead to a rear section of the stage where occasional images are played at the back of the action – Gertrude and Claudius dancing happily at their wedding, Hamlet visiting Ophelia in her closet – which brings out the play’s sense of layers, while the glass doors offer distorted reflections of the characters, the mirroring that Hamlet refers to early on. Although seemingly a modern-day piece, Hildegard Bechtler’s set has a 70s minimalist quality that feels like a muted David Hockney painting from his California series with sharp interior and reflective surfaces.

On top of that Icke has added a big screen that displays Danish newsfeeds of this royal family and the approach of Fortinbras’s army (meaning he never appears on stage) as well as images from the various CCTV cameras that first capture the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Reactions to the Gonzago play and the fencing contest are also shown using video projection. All of this should imply people under constant scrutiny living very public lives, and deals with the difficulty of presenting the larger scale sections in the tiny Almeida space.

But, like last year’s Richard III, the technology is not consistently applied and while spying is a significant part of the play (Claudius and Polonius spy on Hamlet, while Hamlet spies on Claudius) the CCTV isn’t used to create much sense of claustrophobia, while the filming idea feels more about staging issues than integral to the world Icke has created, one that has live streaming of events but people still receive notes on paper and no one appears to have a phone or computer. Its setting, then, is a half-way house between old and new in terms of look, as well as recombining elements from earlier iterations of Hamlet – notably Greg Doran’s 2008 version for the RSC that used mirrored sets, CCTV and filming Claudius to similar effect although here the technology is a decade on.

The technology isn’t much of a distraction and for the most part the audience can concentrate entirely on the performances, when even Tom Gibbons’s semi-permanent soundscape of music and thudding beats thankfully stops to hear the big soliloquies in perfect silence. Scott’s Hamlet connects to a grief and passionate anger that for much of the play barely contains his affecting sobs of despair. The court around him is light and happy, so rather than a pure hero, Scott’s Hamlet becomes the dark and destructive presence that threatens the contentment of those around him. There are moments of wit (and people titter every time they recognise a line) but this is more than a melancholy young man, this is a serious and furiously frenzied Hamlet shouting at the world.

Scott captivates the audience, bringing an energy and ferocity to the production that means the question of Hamlet’s madness remains ambiguous. He clearly gives the role everything he has in a mammoth performance, and when he delivers all the big soliloquies, choosing to engage directly with the audience rather than as dialogues within his own mind, you could hear a pin drop so expertly has he drawn the viewer into the debates, building each speech from frustrated philosophising to rating rages against Claudius, the court and his own ‘blunted purpose’. This Hamlet, wired and on the edge, changes on his return from England but rather than the beatific man we often see, Scott’s Hamlet is resigned to his fate, knowing what will come and letting it play out, as if he has lost whatever fight he had and finally decided ‘not to be’.

The rest of the cast is more mixed however but bring a welcome freshness to Polonius and his children which add to the tragedy of the final moments. So often, productions focus on the royal family with Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia just grist to the mill, unfortunate side-effects in Hamlet’s just quest for vengeance. But here we see them as central to  Hamlet’s own growing madness, a loving and warm family, close and affectionate, unlike his own, that he ultimately destroys – something the audience is asked to linger on in the otherwise dreadful misfire of a ‘heaven-wedding’ ending.

Polonius is usually quite annoying, prattling on only for Hamlet to outwit him. Instead, Peter Wright makes him a loving father, run ragged and highly sympathetic as he delivers news to his royal masters. While the part feels reduced, Wright conveys the notion of a decent and hard-working man looking out for his family which adds genuine sadness to his end. Similarly Ophelia is less fey than usual and the production takes time to create some chemistry with Hamlet while Jessica Brown Findlay delivers the verse quite naturally, although sometimes a little too fast. A minor frustration is her appearance topless in a bath at the back of the stage in a non-verbal scene and is yet another instance of actresses being asked to do something that adds nothing whatsoever to the plot in a production that contains no other nudity. Her madness scenes are less convincing but that is more to do with the way they are presented than her performance, and she too offers a sense of raging grief that reflects Scott’s approach.

Laertes is a small but important role that is often seen as the antithesis of Hamlet’s character. Laertes has greater cause for upset than his former friend, having lost two members of his family, and unlike Hamlet, chooses to act instantly and violently. But with so many hero-Hamlets of late, Laertes is often forgotten, but Luke Thompson brings a nuance to the role which adds an interesting contrast with Scott’s darker Hamlet. While Laertes is comfortably happy and well-loved at the start, Thompson’s return toward the end of the play is a fiery rage of grief and anger – again mirroring Scott’s approach – that makes perfect sense in light of Claudius’s plan. But what is so interesting in this performance is the growing reluctance to see it through, so Thompson’s hands shake, he holds back in the fencing and you see his fear growing as his better nature takes over. It is a very fine performance (the latest in a growing portfolio for the actor) and the mastery of indecision here may set him up well to give his own Hamlet one day.

Less successful however are Claudius and Gertrude, with Angus Wright’s Claudius being virtually without menace. We see them first very much in love at their wedding and for a while we could believe that Hamlet is wrong about his uncle. Maybe Wright is saving his darkness for press night but he hasn’t found the lust for power and the attraction of Claudius yet. He is perhaps miscast, whereas the superb David Rintoul who plays the Ghost and Player King (a neat comment on the potential illusion of Hamlet’s father) could be a considerably more charismatic Claudius. The production also makes the strange decision to have Claudius perform his confessional speech directly to the gun-toting Hamlet rather than have it overheard. But, confessing to Hamlet’s face makes little sense when Hamlet does nothing about it, psychologically he gets the same information and behaves the same way by overhearing it, while being told directly and not shooting him then and there doesn’t quite fit.

Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude has a little more opacity and we’re never quite sure if she is complicit in the death of her first husband, and indeed whether she loves Hamlet at all. Stevenson hints at both these things, particularly in the opening scene as she shows considerable affection to Laertes but doesn’t touch her son. Yet, these two ideas could run more consistently through the performance if Stevenson wants to add a new interpretation to the Gertrude as Lady Macbeth approach.

There are plenty of unanswered questions in The Almeida’s new Hamlet with lots of visual concepts on show that don’t always tie into the production. Ophelia sports some very bad peroxide hair while Laertes has a visible tattoo on his neck which is never referenced, whether these belong to the actors, are for other roles or are meant to suggest the Polonius family are a bit chavvy is unclear, as is the elongated wedding day timeline at the beginning which upsets the point at which Hamlet’s madness is supposed to begin, or the handover of watches at the end showing that time has run out, which needed to be meaningfully referenced throughout to have any significance here.

Despite its length, this is an engaging and highly watchable production that uses its variable pace to just about keep everyone on-board and fully engaged to the end. Part One is 1 hour and 45 minutes which meanders most, but Part Two at 35 minutes and Part Three at 55 minutes ramp up the drama and pressure very well. Overall the approach is an interesting one, and while like Cumberbatch’s version, the production doesn’t always fully align with its star, there are plenty of fresh ideas and excellent performances that make this highly enjoyable. There are lots of things you could do with four hours, but watching Andrew Scott’s powerful and raging Hamlet is certainly one of them, just prepare for a marathon – ‘the readiness is all’.

Hamlet is at The Almeida until 15 April. The production is largely sold out but day tickets and returns are available from £10. The Almeida also has a series of events, talks and activities in their Hamlet for Free Festival from 10-13 April.

Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1

Advertisements

Twelfth Night – National Theatre

twelfth-night-national-theatre

The National Theatre had a pretty impressive year in 2016 resuming its position as one of London’s most consistent and forward-thinking theatres, mixing reimagined classics with new writing. Under Rufus Norris’s artistic directorship its output has felt fresh, diverse and above all innovative, with Annie Baker’s The Flick, Robert Icke’s cinematic The Red Barn and Ivo van Hove’s eviscerating take on Hedda Gabler standing out in a year of hits. And the future is already full of promise with tickets to the revival of Angels in America selling like a rock concert, and new works like Consent to come in 2017, not to mention a 2018 announcement of Macbeth with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, as well as apparently Ralph Fiennes in Anthony and Cleopatra (announced a year ago but no further details), it’s fair to say you now go to the National expecting to be wowed.

But first up for 2017 is a new production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night a perennial Christmas favourite that has nothing to do with the festive season, hence a February opening.  It is clear from the promotional photography that this tale of disguise and unrequited love will largely focus on its comedy characters with Tamsin Greig taking the starring role as the re-gendered Malvolia. And the recasting allows the company to add freshness to an often performed play by playing with notions of sexuality – ideas hinted at in Shakespeare’s text through the frisson between Orsino and Viola when she is disguised as Cesario.

So the plot is an intricate one, starting with a shipwreck that parts twins Viola and Sebastian who both arrive in Illyria thinking the other had perished. Disguised as a boy called Cesario, Viola enters the employ of Duke Orsino and falls in love with him, but Orsino is in love with local noblewoman Olivia, who has foresworn all men. Orsino sends Cesario as messenger but Olivia falls in love with him, not realising its Viola in disguise. Running in parallel, Olivia’s drunken relative Sir Toby Belch and her servants decide to teach the arrogant steward Malvolia a lesson by letting her think Olivia loves her and orchestrate Malvolia’s public humiliation. People are disguised, hearts ache, wires are crossed and hilarity ensues, but Sebastian is still on the island and soon becomes involved in the mix-ups.

The National’s production, which has its press night on Wednesday, is primarily focused on the comedy aspects of the tale which downplays the central romantic stories and partially side-lines the play’s main character Viola. Director Simon Godwin who previously oversaw the brilliantly riotously The Beaux’ Stratagem at the National in 2015 which was a perfectly pitched farce, brings that knowledge to bear on this production of Twelfth Night helping his fine cast to find the levity in Shakespeare’s text while adding plenty of humorous physical and visual comedy touches. The result hasn’t yet meshed into a finely tuned show but, only a few performances in, there are a series of nicely realised comic scenarios which should link more seamlessly as the cast settle into the rhythm.

Aside from the cast, the real star of this version is the ever inventive Soutra Gilmour’s rotating fold-out pyramid set which simply transports the players to various settings relatively smoothly, while offering a slightly dreamlike feel. It starts as the bow of Viola and Sebastian’s ship steered into the rocks that set the story on its way, before triangular segments fold out into Olivia’s glass panelled villa, bricked street scenes, Olivia’s garden and even a gay bar with singing drag Queen – crooning Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. There’s also a large staircase leading to the top which gives the actors something to run around on but also a place to overhear or spy on the action. There were a couple of sticky moments when bits of the set malfunctioned forcing the actor’s to improvise, and the various flaps need to be walked into place by visible technicians, but Gilmour’s 30s meets 70s meets modern interpretation is fascinating, and she has amassed an eclectic body of work.

Gender-swapping within the cast is seamlessly done and makes perfect sense in the context of Godwin’s production. Leading them is Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia who initially puts you in mind of Shakespeare’s other great verbose and fussy attendant, Polonius from Hamlet. Grieg’s first appearance is as a severe and dark presence, clean black bob, and starkly dressed in plain shirt and culottes. The overall appearance is of an ogerish governess, humourless and unimpressed with those around her but certain that her own thoughts and actions are perfect behaviour. That all changes brilliantly on receipt of the faked letter from Olivia and the big reveal of Malvolia in the yellow stockings in part two, which has to be seen rather than spoiled, is a brilliantly timed piece of comedy which Greig relishes superbly. It’s a fun and wide-ranging performance that pins the show together really well.

Equally entertaining is Phoebe Fox’s almost entirely comic Olivia whose over-eager declarations of love and single-minded pursuit of Cesario are a real highlight. Fox brings initial restraint to Olivia, who is in mourning for her recently deceased father and brother, and is clearly a determined, strong young woman who bats away Orsino’s attentions and is admirably unwavering. Yet with the arrival of Cesario Fox utilises these character traits to great effect in trying to capture the object of her affection, as well as making the most of any opportunity to show a giggly or more suggestive aspect of the character.

Completing the comic set is the excellent Tim McMullen as Sir Toby Belch, Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Augecheek, Doon Mackichan as a gender-swapped fool Feste and Niki Wardley as Maria Olivia’s chambermaid who masterminds the plan against Malvolia. It’s a nicely delineated group but together love revelry and drive much of the comedy forward, with McMullen –sartorially channelling Laurence Llewelyn Bowen – and Wardley in particularly making an excellent team as the partying nobleman and the cheeky maid who takes control of him.

The lovers do get pretty short shrift in this version of the play and Orsino’s appearances which bookend the play make it difficult to understand how quickly he transfers his affection from Olivia to Viola. Oliver Chris’s Orsino is a bit of a playboy at the start, driving his sports car on stage to overtly attract Olivia with generic flowers but he genuinely seems devoted as he later mopes through a party-scene. With the emphasis on the comic, we get less chance to see the relationship with Cesario / Viola tip over into something more romantic.

Tamara Lawrance’s Viola is satisfyingly tomboyish making her male disguise convincing and, a difficult thing in modern versions of Shakespeare’s plays, almost believable. And while she hasn’t quite captured the depth of the romance, it’s still early days and that will come. Finally Daniel Ezra is an excellent Sebastian, suitably perplexed by the mistaken identity dramas and with plenty of swagger to give the fight scenes credibility. But there is a hint at Sebastian’s homosexuality in scenes with ship’s captain Antonio and at the gay bar which aren’t followed though when he becomes embroiled in the story with Olivia.

It’s still early in the run and with a couple of previews left before press night there is time to smooth the flow and link more consistently between the high comic moments and the rest of the play which will make its long three hour run time skip more quickly. There are lots of lovely comic performances which carry it along very nicely and, Gilmour’s spectacular set aside, while the show may not have the wow of recent National Theatre productions or build to the farcical pitch it aspires to, this version of Twelfth Night is an entertaining and well-staged evening with plenty of fun moments that keep the audience laughing.

Twelfth Night is at The National Theatre until 13 May and tickets start at £15.  It will be broadcast live to cinemas on 6 April, and is also part of the Friday Rush scheme, offering tickets for the following week at £20 – available from 1pm on Fridays. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


David Hockney – Tate Britain

hawthorn-blossom-near-rudston-2008

With so many exhibitions running in London all the time, it can be difficult to choose between them, especially when everyone is now asking you to pay the best part of £20 for the privilege. But good news for the culturally overwhelmed because there is only one exhibition you need to see this year – David Hockney’s retrospective at Tate Britain. It is 2017’s must-see show and one that will undoubtedly last you all year, allowing you to impress your friends with your knowledge of nearly 60 years of Hockney’s spectacular work.

There are several things that have long made Hockney’s work particularly distinctive, his vibrant use of colour, the way he captures light whether it be the cloudier tones of Yorkshire or the startling clarity of the LA sun, and the deeply personal representation of everything that appears in his work. Of course all artists show us their view of the world, but Hockney at nearly 80, has spent a lifetime painting, drawing and photographing his friends, family and partners, as well as the places he lives or spent time. As you wander through the rooms at Tate Britain – much like the David Bailey show at the Portrait Gallery 2 years ago – it becomes clear that you’re seeing Hockney’s story unfold. This is art as biography.

Most of the exhibition is in chronological order, which is a sensible approach from curators and means you can observe the clear evolution of his style and technique from his days as a student at the Royal College of Art to his most recent work made with iphone and ipads.  And while the early work looks quite different, everything here is distinctively Hockney and this approach means that the consistency of his style can be observed. The early work is quite abstract and may surprise those who have only seen his later creations, but this laid the foundations for the way he would represent reality and the interaction of objects and people. And of course these early works feel like a young man trying to understand himself, particularly in a place where homosexuality was still a criminal offence, and the repeated inclusion of sentences in the pictures feels like you’re in Hockney’s head.

His painting We Two Boys Cling Together from 1961 has the simplicity of a child’s drawing but it evokes quite mixed emotions in the viewer; there’s love clearly, anger too in the frantic brush strokes, but also this sense of incongruity as the heads float away from the bodies suggesting thought and reality are not yet in tune. Turning the corner into the second room and Hockney’s focus on people, which will run through his entire career, shows how that illusion became concrete with depictions of couples in everyday harmony including Domestic Scene [1963] in which one man helps his partner to shower. This may not be the famous work you’ve come to see but its inclusion tells us important things about Hockney’s development as an artist, as well as his personal experiences, so don’t hurry past it too quickly.

When Hockney arrived in LA in 1964 something in his work shifted, and a fascination with linear form, colour and light would dominate his work for years to come. In Room 4 you finally get to see that transition in some of his most famous pieces, including A Bigger Splash from 1967 which contrasts the roller-painted water and endless turquoise sky with the time-consuming construction of the white splash of water created supposedly by a figure we cannot see from a diving board that also isn’t moving. It’s an incredible piece that seems to create stillness and movement effortlessly, but the secret is the way Hockney uses different lines of varying lengths to give his work dynamism, and something that you will notice for the rest of the exhibition.

A Lawn Being Sprinkled, David Hockney [1967]

A Lawn Being Sprinkled [1967]

Next to it, is A Lawn Being Sprinkled comprised of hundreds of individually created blades of grass, where Hockney uses length to show depth and distance in the picture. It’s impossible to see on digital recreations or even that well on postcards, but its effect is remarkable, especially against the white sprinkler sprays dotted evenly across the lawn and the flat smoothness of the house and sky. The diagonal white lines of the window denoting reflected light in Peter Getting Out of the Pool [1966] also sit purposefully alongside the crosshatching of the garden chair, the geometric perfection of the window itself and the pool tiles, while being challenged by the swirling pink and white tangles of the pool. There is a real sense of ease and warmth in these works which accounts for their continued popularity especially on a cold dank February day in very troubled times.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures), David Hockney [1972]

Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures) [1972]

But Hockney’s fascination with the relationship between people, displayed so well in Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) from 1972 as his ex-boyfriend appears to jealously observe Hockney’s assistant, leads neatly into his late 1960s and 1970s works on couples. The famous Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark picture that you can normally see in the Tate for free is here, as is a fascinating image of Hockney’s own parents from 1977 that shows a separate togetherness. In almost every image in this room, one person is clearly the master in the relationship, and while Hockney’s mother looks sweetly at the viewer, his father is hunched over and engrossed in a book as if he has better things to do than pose for paintings. We see the same power dynamic in American Collectors [1968] depicting Marcia Weisman in shocking pink as her thin, brown-suited husband stands limply by, mirrored in Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott [1969] as the Met Museum curator dominates the canvas on a plush pink sofa, while his painter boyfriend looks on as if unsure whether he’s coming or going.

One of the most fascinating elements of this exhibition is the chance to see work you don’t normally associate with Hockney’s exuberant coloured paintings. The delicacy of his drawings is almost astonishing after the scale and hit of the work before and Hockney’s light touch in images of Auden or his own self-portrait is really surprising. As I mentioned above it is Hockney’s use of the line that makes these images so interesting, using only a few skilled representative dashes to create personality and in some places it puts you in mind of the later work of Quentin Blake and Raymond Briggs.

Hockney also experimented with collage photography and a room filled with layered photographs which he uses to instil liveliness in the static image, leads neatly into my favourite part of the exhibition, the images of the Grand Canyon and Yorkshire which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2012 and took ideas of scale to a new level. The winding mountains and roads you see in his early student work take form here as pathways and valleys sweep through abundant countryside, often in startling luminous colours. Seeing two contrasting landscapes side by side, the red and orange desert of southern America with the lush greens and bursting pale yellow flowers of Yorkshire, is an almost overwhelming immersive experience. Composed of nine individually painted canvases, Grand Canyon is a collision of purples, reds and oranges that suggest the heat and aridity of Arizona, while a related image takes the colour saturation to almost fluorescent levels which again digital or paper copies just cannot replicate, you have to see it.

may-blossom-on-the-roman-road-2009

May Blossom on the Roman Road [2009]

The Yorkshire work from 2006 onwards, when Hockney came home, is for me some of the best of his career and a culmination of everything this exhibition has shown you. Best of all is the two panel Hawthorn Blossom Near Rudston [2008] which shows a red painted road with lines of blue depth that intersects the picture, framed by luscious grass verges and hedges filled with wild flowers and bursting yellow blossom moving in the breeze. The individual lines of grass and dots of flowers and leaves are romantic and calming in equal measure. Nearby, May Blossom on the Roman Road [2009] shows Hockney continuing to play with technique as a van Gogh inspired blue swirling sky meets abstract-formed hedges and abundant foliage. The scale and effect of this work is just glorious.

Some stunning pencil sketches of Yorkshire follow plotting particular spots through the seasons as well as the immersive video of The Four Seasons which mimics the layering of photograph from earlier with a sensitivity to the opportunities of modern technology. Finishing the show are the ipad and iphone creations that Hockney has more recently embraced and despite being an entirely different way of creating art still have his distinct style and voice.

The Tate’s exhibition was always going to be a hit, but even on this opening weekend, it’s clear that it’s been carefully planned to enhance the viewer experience rather than just packing people in. Despite the panic and two days with no online booking, tickets are still readily available and entry, even for those with timed tickets, is controlled in waves to ensure there’s no overcrowding. And it works because you can get close to every piece with very little jostling, and while most people are rushing through to the major works, taking your time means not only do you get the full story but by room 7 of 12 you have plenty of space.

The chronological approach allows you to see Hockney’s life story develop, while observing his experiments with technology and the development of his technique. Not just light, colour and personality but his skilled use of lines throughout his career. So take you time – you can easily spend 90 minutes or more in here – and enjoy it all because this is a spectacular experience that people will be talking about for a long time to come.

David Hockney is at Tate Britain until 29th May, before transferring to Paris and then New York later this year. Entrance is £19.50 or £17.70 without donation and concessions are available.


The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

glass-menagerie

Absence and disappointment fill Tennessee Williams’s first big successful play The Glass Menagerie, but its appeal rests in the charm of its small family, one room set-up that continues to feel relevant and troubling today. Yet it’s been quite some time since a production has reached the West End despite a well-received version at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2015; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof come round fairly often, and we even had a rather flat production of In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel last year at the Charing Cross Theatre, but the complexities of Williams’s 1944 play with its hyper-realised memory-format make it difficult to do well.

The 2013 American Repertory Theatre production of this play has finally made it to London, where it has already received stellar reviews to add to its Tony nominations from Broadway. And all of them are entirely deserved in a production that showcases the complexities of family relationships and pointedly reveals the inner-life of its characters. The one thing you’ll hear over and over again about this play is that it is Williams’s most autobiographical work but how much he has drawn from his own life and experiences in the several years it took to compose this play are debatable, but that is not all there is to say about this remarkable drama.

Set in the Wingfield’s small St Louis flat in an unremarkable tenant block, the narrator Tom lives with his mother and sister in genteel poverty. Tom works at the local shoe warehouse and dreams of freedom from the burden of providing for his family, a burden which takes him to ‘the movies’ every night to escape into the adventure of the silver screen. Matriarch Amanda has cared for her, now adult, children since her husband abandoned them many years before and dreams of receiving a “gentlemen caller” to marry her painfully shy and slightly disabled daughter Laura. Obsessed with her own past glories as a younger woman, Amanda nags and harries Tom until he finally agrees to bring home a friend from work, a night that changes everything.

Where Williams excels as a dramatist is his ability to show an audience what’s going on under the skin of his characters even when their surface demeanour is calm, poised and seemingly repressed. Particularly drawn to people who aspire to a type of gentility they lack or have since lost, Williams characters often burn with an interior passion for something or someone that can never be realised, or if it is will be a fleeting pleasure rather than the much needed change of life. We see this in Blanche who yearns for the respectability of marriage and stability but cannot fight her baser attractions to virile younger men, and we see it in Maggie who tries to be a dutiful daughter-in-law and wife but cannot contain her unrequited passion for her husband and his protection from the machinations of his family.

In The Glass Menagerie, and so beautifully realised in this production, the three primary characters struggle in exactly the same way, having to present one face to the world, to show acceptance and duty, while inside their fantasies of escape and freedom fight to emerge. The dramatic frame is set by Tom who speaks directly to the audience at the beginning from some future time, long after the events the play recounts. These are his memories and ones we are asked not to trust, as they are filled with illusion and his years of regret. Tom (which happens to be Williams’s real name) is then partly an unreliable narrator but also someone we come to view quite differently as events play out.

Initially he seems a steady, reliable young man, worn down by the drudgery of his work who seeks solace for his sensitive soul in writing poetry and going to the cinema. But actor Michael Esper slowly reveals the complexities under the surface, a sense of frustration with his overbearing mother and her constant interference, a rage against the world for forcing him into a life he didn’t want and, somewhat surprisingly, a secret drive to abandon them entirely. It is in the second act that an unexpected darkness emerges in Tom as he fights for his own survival, and in Esper’s performance you get clever hints that Tom is not all he seems, that ‘the movies’ may not be what we think and his interest in Jim the “gentleman caller” is something less wholesome than his family believes.

Similarly sister Laura, played by Kate O’Flynn is a delicate, broken creature, drummed into shyness and a sense of inferiority by the demands of her mother. Obsessed with caring for her collection of glass ornaments, represented here as only one small glass unicorn, Laura we learn has lived a life unfulfilled by work or love, clinging only to the constancy of her fragile collection. And while away from her mother we see her care for her brother’s welfare, it is with the arrival of Jim that O’Flynn allows Laura’s true character to burst into life, as she warms to the gentleness of his treatment, becoming talkative and momentarily happy in his presence. We see that despite her reticence she yearns for the kind of love her mother dreams of for her, something she has always convinced herself was not possible for someone like her. And the audience truly feels for her as the play reaches its conclusion.

In many ways, Amanda is the most complicated role of them all and Cherry Jones’s Tony-nominated performance is a masterclass in Williams’s pushy Southern women. Disguised as a protective instinct, to save her children from vice, Amanda is concerned that the world should see her as a decent, dignified woman. Like her children she has no current friends to speak of, but she revels in memories of her past that seem as real to her in Jones’s performance, as the present day. We never know really what happened with her husband and there are some hints that he was unsuitable, but she focuses on the many offers and admirers she once had, and the dreamlike reality of that earlier happier time. Amanda nags and berates her children, interferes in their business and talks excessively at people, so the audience understands Tom’s need to escape entirely. Yet, Jones still makes her sympathetic, affected by the absence of her husband and the disappointment of a life that promised so much and delivered so little.

Although a relatively small role Jim played by Brian J. Smith, the infamous “gentleman caller” is a sensitive young man who arrives at the Wingfield’s with no expectation of why he’s really there. Williams also gives him a similar sense of internal and external battle as he is drawn to Laura’s sadness and tries to gently nurture her confidence. Smith dominates the few scenes he’s in, as a breath of fresh air that blows through the Wingfield house bringing momentary hope and happiness to everyone inside, which serves to makes the conclusion only feel more emotive.

John Tiffany directs with a deep understanding of the layers in Williams’s play, while cleverly mixing a sense of encroaching reality with the ephemeral nature of memory. Natasha Katz’s lighting design adds to the dreamlike quality of the production and the slightly haunting nature of Tom’s few narrative moments. Bob Crowley’s layers of hexagonal set pitch the three sections slightly out of line with each other, which beautifully reflects how little the three protagonists understand each other, while the whole is cut into by a lightning bolt-shaped fire escape that pierces the Wingfield’s flat and underlines Tom’s concluding speech.

The flat is surrounded by a vast black lagoon which is occasionally lit like stars in moments of hope but seeks to demonstrate the endless emptiness that surrounds all of them, like an island forever cut-off from the outside world. While it works brilliantly as metaphor, it does lose the sense of crowding and claustrophobia that tenement-living induces and is also vital to the play’s subtext. There is little sense of being surrounded by other lives here which is a shame, and the National’s recent take on The Deep Blue Sea had a more suitable solution to the block housing problem.

Nonetheless, this is a masterfully charged production of Williams’s early play, and while the style takes a little while to get used to, it soon draws you into the inner-lives of its lonely protagonists. And while in one sense it is a tiny domestic drama that affects only the four characters we see, it has a universality that is quite affecting. Everyone has lost or never achieved something they wanted, whether it is love, recognition or freedom, and Williams’s creations represent something we can all recognise. The power of this play’s characters, and the American Repertory Theatre’s excellent production, is that all of them are fragile creatures, a glass menagerie that we watch shatter in the hands of the playwright.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29 April. Tickets start at £20 but do note ATG booking fees. Day seats are available from £15 at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


%d bloggers like this: